Self Esteem

Resilience Begins with Responsibility: The Power of Service for Kids with ADHD

We often say to kids who are struggling and feeling hopeless in school, “You can’t do this unless you do that first,” which translates to, “If you act dignified, we’ll give you dignified things to do.” My philosophy? Let’s give students dignified things to do before setting up conditions, and they’ll rise to the occasion.

Getty Images/Alistair Berg
Getty Images/Alistair Berg

Early in my career, when I served as principal of a school in a psychiatric hospital, a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) said to me, “Why are you trying to help me? I was born with ADHD. God gave me that, and I can’t learn.”

For many children with ADHD, self-esteem takes a deep dive during the early school years as they begin to compare themselves to neurotypical peers. They experience a loss of motivation, negative attitudes about school and themselves, and other consequences that seep into various aspects of their lives.

One of the most important things we can do for children with ADHD is to help them nurture a positive self-view. Children who feel secure and competent are more likely to thrive in and out of school and be hopeful and resilient in the face of life’s inevitable setbacks.

Focusing on a child’s strengths is key to helping them cultivate a positive self-view, as is creating opportunities for them to help others by activating their strengths.

A Child’s Strengths: Islands of Competence

Something significant happens when parents and teachers start to focus on a child’s strengths and interests – or what I call “islands of competence” – instead of their challenges and so-called deficits. They begin to see features of their child or student that they have not focused upon before and begin to consider more effective ways to address the youngster’s problems both at home and in the classroom.

[Get This Free Download: 4 Secrets to Motivating Students with ADHD]

I first used the islands of competence concept and approach with a 10-year-old outpatient boy with ADHD whose main way of coping with his learning challenges was to hit other kids. As he came to trust me, he confided, “I’d rather be sent to the principal’s office than be in a classroom where I feel like a dummy.”

Instead of focusing on his troubles, I asked him what he liked to do and learned that he loved to take care of his pet dog. (He spent most of that therapy session providing great advice on caring for a pet.) I thought of ways in which the boy’s interest in and expertise with pets might be used to help him feel motivated and dignified in school.

I spoke to the school principal about this boy’s interests. By chance, the school had a number of classrooms with pets. The principal appointed this boy the Pet Monitor, which involved his ensuring that all pets were well-taken care of. The boy’s teacher creatively called upon his interest in pets when she informed him that the school library lacked a good book on taking care of pets and invited him to write a small book on the subject. She added that she would help him with the writing. He accepted her invitation and the book he wrote was bound and featured prominently in the school library.

School and learning eventually became a source of positive emotion for the boy. He was much more receptive to using other effective coping and learning strategies we suggested. And he never hit another student again since he no longer felt the need to escape from the classroom.

[Read: 10 Ways to Raise a Confident, Happy Child]

Your Child’s Island of Competence Is Uniquely Theirs

One of the most challenging concepts for parents to grasp is the idea of accommodating to their child’s interests and temperament instead of the other way around. I once saw a 7-year-old shy boy with learning problems in therapy. His father, recounting his own childhood, said his fondest memories were playing sports with his dad. He sadly observed that his son showed no interest in sports. When I asked him and his wife what they identified as their son’s interests and islands of competence, they both immediately replied that he loved to draw and it was a real skill of his. The father added, “That’s the problem – I don’t like to draw at all.”

I sensed that the father, struggling to connect with his son, felt like he was growing apart from him. However, he took to heart my suggestion that he consider ways of “joining” his son’s island of competence. He signed up for a parent-child art class at a local museum and called me after the first session. “Do you know what it felt like to watch my son so joyful as he was drawing?” He laughed and added, “I had some trouble drawing, and my son said, ‘Maybe you’re not holding the pencil the right way, Dad.’” The positive connection the father had established with his son with the art lesson was very evident.

Contributory Activities: The Benefits of Giving Back

What’s your favorite memory of school? What positive moments stand out to you? In research I conducted, I discovered that for many adults, one of their favorite memories occurred when they were asked by their teacher or another adult in the school to help out in some manner. Examples included being asked to help pass out the milk and straws, design the school yearbook, or tutor a struggling student. I call these “contributory” or “charitable” activities that serve to boost a sense of purpose, self-esteem, motivation, and dignity. Making a positive difference in the lives of others enriches our own lives and is a basic foundation for resilience.

Although I believe that all children should be afforded opportunities to engage in contributory activities, I have found that all-too-often these kinds of activities in school are reserved for high-achieving students. We often say to kids who are struggling and feeling hopeless in school, “You can’t do this unless you do that first,” which translates to, “If you act dignified, we’ll give you dignified things to do.” My philosophy? Let’s give students dignified things to do before setting up conditions, and they’ll rise to the occasion.

Contributory activities also help children gain a sense of personal control, especially in tough times. For many children, the act of wearing a face mask represents “doing your part” in the pandemic. As another example, providing opportunities for students to raise money for a food bank or other charity enlists their desire to be of service. Amid uncertainty and turmoil, these acts convey an attitude of caring and resilience, and capture the ways in which resilient people focus their time and energy on things they can impact and influence. (Those who are not resilient tend to think, “Why did this have to happen to me? Why did these things have to occur?”) When children contribute – in school, at home, and within communities – it creates a culture where everyone benefits.

In all, when children with ADHD do something they find meaningful and make a positive difference in the lives of others, it enhances their performance in school, their behavior, and their wellbeing.

Resilience and a Child’s Strengths: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from “Resilience and Student Health,” a webinar organized by The Quaker School at Horsham, and featuring Dr. Robert Brooks as a panelist. Dr. Robert Brooks is the author of Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child (#CommissionsEarned) and Tenacity in Children: Nurturing the Seven Instincts for Lifetime Success (#CommissionsEarned). He has lectured nationally and internationally to audiences of parents, educators, and mental health professionals on topics pertaining to motivation, resilience, family relationships, and more.


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